American Top 40 PastBlast, 5/6/72: Chi-Lites, “Oh Girl”

While looking over this chart, I remembered that this week’s #11 and future #1 song, the Chi-Lites’ melancholy “Oh Girl,” got covered by Paul Young while I was in grad school. That got me wondering: how many #1 songs of the 70s had re-makes hit the Top 40? With my trusty Joel Whitburn book in hand, I found twelve that had done so by 2002. I don’t claim the list is exhaustive—I can’t vouch for anything from the last sixteen-plus years—so you’re more than welcome to tell me what I’ve overlooked (nothing obvious, I hope). I’ll say up front the Flack/Hathaway version of “You’ve Got a Friend” doesn’t count (since its run was contemporaneous with James Taylor’s) nor does the Four Seasons’ 94 remix of their own “December 1963 (Oh What a Night).”

Here it is, in chronological order of the 70s versions that hit #1, including peak position/month/year of the covers:

“Venus,” Bananarama (#1, Sept 86)
“Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Aretha Franklin (#6, Jun 71)
“I’ll Be There,” Mariah Carey (#1, Jun 92)
“Let’s Stay Together,” Tina Turner (#26, Mar 84)
“Without You,” Mariah Carey (#3, Mar 94)
“Oh Girl,” Paul Young (#8, Oct 90)
“Lean on Me,” Club Nouveau (#1, Mar 87)
“I Can See Clearly Now,” Jimmy Cliff (#18, Jan 94)
“The Loco-Motion,” Kylie Minogue (#3, Nov 88)
“Lady Marmalade,” Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink (#1, Jun 01)
“Play That Funky Music,” Vanilla Ice (#4, Feb 91)
“Don’t Leave Me This Way,” Communards (#40, Mar 87)

Some notes:
–My original intention was to grade both the ‘original’ (discussion of the quotes momentarily) and the cover on a 10-point scale, but the exercise was not all that useful. First, all the ‘originals’ scored between 7 and 10—they’re really good songs!—and second, my biased ears didn’t find any cover to be better than (or even as good as) what came before. Ergo, the grades got cut from this writeup.
–Not all of the 70s #1 hits can lay claim to being truly ‘original.’ The obvious one is Grand Funk’s “The Loco-Motion,” which is itself a cover of a #1 song from the 60s. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was first recorded by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Badfinger wrote and recorded “Without You” before Harry Nillson did.
–Notice how many times the re-make hit the Top 10. Sometimes a good song is just a good song, although honestly, a cover of a good song isn’t always good (looking at you especially, Kylie and Ice).
–The cover that I graded closest to the original was Aretha’s take on “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” She did a fabulous job of making the song her own. (S&G received the only 10 I doled out, by the way, but I gave six 9s, including Aretha.)
–This brings up a question that’s occurred as I’ve re-listened to the covers this week: what’s the point of doing a re-make? Was there an artistic reason in these cases for doing so? Club Nouveau and the Communards (and maybe Bananarama) get graded up on this account; Young and Minogue definitely get knocked down, and possibly Carey as well.
-Tina gets a lot of slack in this regard, as having some commercial success with her remake was a necessary condition to cut the rest of what became Private Dancer. Let’s be grateful she made a dent in the charts with this.
–Difficult to say the Jimmy Cliff take on “I Can See Clearly Now,” which appeared on the Cool Runnings soundtrack, is radically different from that of Johnny Nash, but it’s a nice, uplifting piece.
–Yes, it’s really hard to call the Vanilla Ice a cover, but once one adopts the stage name Vanilla Ice, it’s an obvious career move to record yourself singing/rapping the phrase, “Play that funky music, white boy.”
–I think I was already too old for much of pop in 2001 when Aguilera, Lil’ Kim and company recorded “Lady Marmalade” for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. I honestly don’t know what to say about it, so I’ll let others chime in if they wish.

To circle back to where this all started, I suppose it’s time to let the Chi-Lites do their thing. I’d be willing to go so far as to say it’s the closest thing to a 9.5 out of the eleven non-“Bridge” songs under discussion.

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